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India SIM cards

Nils Zimmermann with material from dpaSeptember 5, 2016

India is set to hand out free SIM cards to tourists on arrival. That's a bigger deal than you think. For years, visitors to the country had to endure mind-boggling bureaucracy simply to get a mobile number in-country.

Taj Mahal
Image: picture-alliance/David Ebener

On Monday, India's tourism minister Mahesh Sharma told the Indian news agency PTI that the Home Ministry has given the green light for Tourism to provide foreign tourists - who arrive in the country using electronic tourist visas - with SIM cards when they arrive in India.

"We had a number of meetings with the Home Ministry with regard to providing SIM cards to foreigner tourists when they land in India," Sharma said. "The Ministry has finally agreed to our proposal. Now, it will take some time to start the facility."

Sharma hopes the initiative can launch on September 27, the UN's World Tourism Day.

According to a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council, tourism accounted for as much as six percent of India's total GDP in 2015. By smoothing logistics for tourists, India hopes to improve its reputation amongst visitors and increase the flow of visitors.

India's e-tourist visa scheme, available for citizens of 150 countries, has been described as a 'game-changer.' Foreign tourist arrivals surged from 6.3 million in 2011 to 8.03 million last year.

Wall paintings in Kerala
Wall paintings in Kerala, messaging against drug abuse. India isn't just the Taj Mahal - the country boasts an endless diversity of sights, sounds, tastes and experiences for touristsImage: UNI/Suneesh kumar

If the SIM issue seems minor or obscure: It isn't. Having a working mobile phone is an enormous convenience, and can be a life-or-death matter for tourists in any country. It's especially useful when visiting somewhere as challenging as India. But India, with its famously overwrought bureaucracy, has made it notoriously difficult to get a SIM card, for no particular reason.

The result has been that many tourists were left dependent on dodgy phone booths to make calls, or had to waste a lot of time struggling to get their SIM cards approved.

Navigating the needless red tape

To get an idea of the complexity aquiring a working SIM card in India has entailed in recent years, consider this Tripadvisor post from July 2014:

"You need to be prepared to submit the following documents to the SIM vendor, along with an application form:

Two color passport photographs, photocopy of the personal details page of your passport, photocopy of your Indian visa, photocopy of the proof of your home address in your country of residence (passport, driver's license or any other Government issued document), and proof of where you will be staying in India.

Once the documents are verified, you can purchase the SIM immediately and you will get a 10-digit mobile number. Usually, the SIM is activated within 24 hours, after a confirmation call is made to your mobile phone verifying the details provided in your application.

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If you plan on traveling to several locations in India, be sure to get roaming activated on your SIM. Otherwise, you will have to buy separate SIM cards at every new place that you visit. As per new regulations, a SIM is valid only for a three-month period after which time it will have to be reactivated.

A key phrase in the foregoing is, "Once the documents are verified..." That can take time.

Welcome kit

Mahesh Sharma's tourism ministry wants to make arrival in India a less Kafkaesque, frustrating, and time-wasting experience for tourists. The SIM card - still only valid for 30 days, unfortunately - will have preloaded talk time and data, but no international roaming facilitiy.

It will be handed out as part of a welcome kit that includes maps.

"At least, that's the hope", a tourism ministry official said, while the scheme to hand out working SIM cards to tourists on arrival was recently approved by the Home Ministry, "a few more final clearances are awaited, following which we hope to implement the scheme shortly."